A picture of the little figure (above) that I described in an earlier post is going to illustrate my forthcoming article on the figurative pottery of the 1920s and 1930s in West 86th. Since writing it, I’ve found out more about the elusive artist who signed it JMW. The subject matter led me to think she was a woman. A picture of a similar piece by “J. West” in the Camberwell Art School’s archive (below) made me think he might be a man. In fact she was Joan Mary West (1883-1974), an artist with a varied practice, who came to ceramics comparatively late in life.
There’s a solitary painting by her in Manchester City Art Gallery, Ennui (below), undated, but judging from its style, painted at roughly the same time as her little figures, though it’s free of their sentimentality.
I’d assumed she was a young student at Camberwell, but she was in her forties when she studied there. On Ancestry.com I even found a picture of her, no doubt taken at about that time, and showing her interest in pottery.
Edward Bawden (1903-1989) was a witty observer of contemporary life and his designs are a good record of mid-20th century England. He was arguably one of the greatest British graphic artists of the period. His work appeals to me partly because I was trained to do graphic work like his: at school, our Slade-trained teacher showed us how to design posters and book jackets designs using bold outline, flat colour, simple shapes, counterchange and hand-drawn lettering, and she showed us us Bawden’s work to inspire us. Every graphic designer had to be able to do hand-drawn lettering then and we spent hours learning the dimensions of the Gill Sans font.
Bawden was a CBE, a Royal Academician, a trustee of the Tate Gallery and received many other honours. He achieved success and recognition through the quality of his work and presumably because of his dedication, but he was shy and didn’t push himself. It’s hard to imagine an artist without push achieving such success today. He was prolific and there are scores of books, magazines, posters and ephemera to be found with his designs. His work remains popular and he’s held in great affection. He bequeathed his work to the Cecil Higgins Gallery in Bedford, who occasionally put on exhibitions. He was a war artist and did serious graphic work in France and the Middle East.
Cairo, the Citadel: On the Roof of the Officers’ Mess, c.1941. Tate Gallery
In her obituary in The Independent, Frances Spalding said, “He recognised no distinction between the artist and the designer. His interest in craftsmanship placed him in a tradition that looks back to the Arts and Crafts Movement.” Digital design has made nearly all of Bawden’s methods antique. There are still good illustrators around but it’s now possible to get by as a graphic designer without being able to draw at all: a designer recently admitted to me that she couldn’t make original images and relied on what she could download from online libraries.
Bawden had a small circle of friends and didn’t relish public engagements. Spalding relates that, late in life, when he was deaf, he was persuaded to go to a dinner held by Tarmac, whom he’d done some designs for. One of the directors talked to him at length about Tarmac’s charitable work while Bawden doggedly ate his dinner. His interlocutor spoke louder and louder and finally asked him what charities he thought Tarmac should be supporting. “Road accidents?” he suggested.
Peyton Skipwith, who promoted his work, recalls that Bawden had a curious love of money coupled with a strong disdain for it. When Skipwith put some of Bawden’s drawings on sale, Bawden pretended to be horrified at the price asked, but became content when Skipwith suggested he cross the road and look at the price of shoes. “With typical perversity, from then on he insisted that I always checked the price of shoes before pricing his own work.”
Bawden was educated at the Cambridge School of Art and the Royal College of Art (RCA), where went on a scholarship in lettering and calligraphy. One of his teachers at the RCA was Paul Nash, from whom he learned the use of the starved brush dipped in dry paint and dragged across the paper to leave streaks of white showing under the colour. The technique was used to even better effect by Bawden’s friend and contemporary at the RCA, Eric Ravilious.
Bawden’s strength was his ability to design for print. He made many lithographs and linocuts, typically printed in four or five flat colours, which transferred well to the commercial press. While still a student, he was taken up by Harold Curwen of the Curwen Press and asked to design a booklet for Carter Stabler and Adams of the Poole Pottery. Bawden spent a year working at Curwen and acquired a thorough knowledge of reproduction methods. Harold Curwen changed his stolid family firm into one of the artistically most important and technically most advanced presses of the 20th century. Bawden’s work was part of its artistic transformation.
Bawden became better known in 1928 when he was asked to do the drawings for a series of press adverts for Shell-Mex and BP (above). These had amusing captions and amusing drawings – Bawden said that in the 1920s, “amusing” was a widespread term of approval. Press illustration until that time had tended to be either literal or comic and Bawden’s approach to the Shell ads drawing was considered “modern”. He then went on to work for Midland Bank, Twinings, Fortnum and Mason, London Transport, the Folio Society and the Saffron Walden Labour Party. His pictures for Midland Bank were amusing. The little picture below for Midland Bank recalls Alfred Wallis, the naïve Cornish painter.
His illustrations for the Folio Gulliver’s Travels (below) (1965) were lithographs printed in flat red, blue, grey, black and yellow inks, not in half-tone. By changing the dominant colour in each picture and the way in which one colour is printed over another, which yields another colour, Bawden achieved greater richness and variety than you would think possible with five inks. This method is now more expensive than full colour printing.
His design for Fortnum and Mason uses black, grey and red. The line drawing has the quality of woodcut and the tones are varied by Bawden’s use of solid washes, sponging and shading with parallel lines.
His monochrome drawing of the penguin pool at London Zoo done in the 1930s is treated sparely, with little black, and captures the brilliant white of Lubetkin’s design.
Bawden’s work may not have developed much but he had a wide repertoire of styles and methods. He illustrated cookery books by Ambrose Heath, now so old-fashioned that the books are only worth collecting for Bawden’s decorations. The title page of Good Soups demonstrates his skill at varying line weight and depth of black, his ability to suggest colour through the counterchange in the roundels in the margin (black-on-white on the left, white-on-black on the right) and his educated hand lettering. The bird stealing the pea is typical.
One of the constants in our lives that will have to change now – the postage stamps, which have carried the same image since 1966. These almost unnoticed works of art – said to be among the most reproduced in history, with 320 billion copies made – have a connection with the pottery industry, having been designed by the eminent Stoke-on-Trent modeller, Arnold Machin.
The image is a photo of a clay bas-relief, reminiscent of reliefs on the ceramics of Wedgwood, a firm Machin once worked for. He also designed the image of the Queen on the decimal coinage introduced in 1968 and seen on all British coins until 1984.
The Portland Vase, Wedgwood’s first successful use of bas-relief sculpture, now a cliché of Jasper ware.
Machin started as an apprentice china painter at Minton’s at the age of 14, studied sculpture at Stoke-on-Trent College of Art and in the 1930s moved to Royal Crown Derby. He went on to study at the Royal College of Art and later taught there.
Machin’s choice as the official stamp designer is interesting because he wasn’t an establishment figure at all, having been imprisoned as a conscientious objector in World War II.
In 1947 he was elected ARA. At his death in 1999 he was the longest-serving member of the Royal Academy.
It was suggested to the Queen several times that Machin’s image be replaced, but she never agreed.
William Rothenstein knew everyone in the art world of the early 20th century, so his memoirs – Men and Memories and After Fifty – are informative as well as entertaining. Since I’ve been writing about W. R. Lethaby, I thought I should go and see what Rothenstein had to say about him. Not surprisingly they knew one another well. They visited Paris and Chartres together. Rothenstein respected Lethaby’s scholarship, judgement and integrity and his contribution to the crafts. I’ve copied the relevant passage below.
Rothenstein became principal of the Royal College of Art shortly after Lethaby had retired as professor of design and while his infliuence was still strongly felt. In a confidential memorandum Rothenstein expressed reservations about the air of medievalism that he’d left behind him and the poor work being done in some of the subjects in the design school.
The National Portrait Gallery have this rather nice photo showing students and staff of the Royal College of Art in around 1900. Walter Crane (in the white hat) is in the centre. The man on his left in the bowler hat is Beresford Pite, the professor of architecture, and on the far right in the front row is Edouard Lanteri, the professor of sculpture.
Photos like this were taken every summer at the RCA in what is now the John Madejski Garden of the V&A. Crane was College principal from 1898-9, when he made major changes to the curriculum, introducing more practical courses in place of pettifogging detailed drawing, copying from casts and designing on paper.
He wrote of his time there, “As far as the existing constitution of the school and its relation to the Board of Education would allow, I endeavoured to expand the range of studies, especially in the direction of Design and Handicraft; and in order to give the students some insight into the relation between design and material, I was fortunate enough to obtain the services of accomplished artists to give lectures, and demonstrations where possible, in their special crafts.” But he didn’t like all the form-filling that a government post demanded and a bout of flu sapped his energy.
The interesting thing about this photo is that all the students are women. About half the enrolled students were women and about half the graduates became full-time teachers. But why this group was taken isn’t clear.
In 1911 the government produced a damning report on the Royal College of Art (RCA). It focused on the shortcomings of the school of design, headed by W. R. Lethaby, saying he encouraged petty handicrafts of little economic significance, failed to acquaint students with the requirements of industry and left them unsuited to practical employment. Not surprisingly it was highly controversial and triggered a vigorous public debate.
The driving force behind the report was Sir Robert Morant, permanent secretary at the Board of Education. On his initiative the committee of inquiry was set up and members were recruited who could be expected to come to the conclusions the Board wanted – that is to say, the conclusions he wanted. It’s not entirely clear what his motivation was but it’s reasonable to suppose that he responded to industry criticisms and disliked what he saw as drift and muddle at the RCA.
Morant was a clearsighted and forceful civil servant with long experience of education and a commitment to improving it. In the late 1890s he had been instrumental in creating the Board of Education, which brought into one place the administration of elementary, secondary, technical and university teaching. His great achievement was the 1902 Education Act, which extended secondary education and put it under the control of local authorities instead of the mass of little boards that had existed previously. Later, after leaving education, he set up the national insurance scheme.
Before the report was initiated the Board arranged for Lewis Foreman Day to replace Walter Crane as an RCA Visitor (that is to say, a College inspector) so as to have in place someone who would speak frankly about Lethaby’s shortcomings. Day warned Morant that if he was appointed, he would have to speak his mind. Morant accepted that and told his minister, Sir Walter Runciman, that they had been thinking of getting rid of Lethaby anyway. (As it was, he remained until his retirement in 1918.) Day’s highly critical internal report then prepared the ground for the public report.
Day had recently helped to form The Design Club, which brought together designers, manufacturers and retailers, and he believed that high quality products were made when artists and industrialists worked together. This approach was bound to have recommended itself to the Board.
The differences between Day and Crane – which may be summarised as the difference between the industry outlook and the handicraft outlook – were well-known and Lethaby’s views at this time were closer to Crane’s than to Day’s. Day’s differences with Crane had been set out in their book Moot Points, where they discussed how far the artist should accommodate himself to industry and how far he should stand aloof from it. Crane said how much he disliked the way that artists were forced to make work that would sell and the fact that they were likely to starve if they did not. He looked forward to a society where there was no profit motive and no pressure to sell, where the artist would be free to follow his imagination and where he would be rewarded for doing so by an appreciative community. Day thought Crane took himself too seriously as an artist and that his demand to do whatever he liked was self-indulgent. Both the quality of the art and the character of the artist would be improved in his opinion by the artist learning to design within constraints.
In reality, Day’s, Crane’s and Lethaby’s ideas may have differed in emphasis rather than essence and Day and Crane may have exaggerated their differences in Moot Points for rhetorical effect. A few years later, Lethaby was one of a group of dissidents in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society who formed the Design and Industries Association. Crane was a practical designer of wallpapers, fabrics and pottery and a prolific illustrator of children’s books and knew full well how to adapt his ideas for manufacturing. His eminence derived in large measure from his achievements as a designer and he was a member of Day’s Design Club. At the RCA Lethaby set his students design exercises intended to give them skills they could apply to a wide range of work. Lethaby’s biographer, Godfrey Rubens – who naturally takes Lethaby’s side against Day and the Board of Education – makes the interesting suggestion that these exercises anticipated the sort of studies that came into the art schools as Basic Design forty years later.
Those like me who have only known the RCA’s Darwin building in Kensington Gore may be interested to know how long it took to build – fifty years if you count from when the decision was made. The College was previously tucked into corners of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it had been since 1863, and from the turn of the century it was obvious that the premises were too small and badly laid out, incluing sheds and annexes a long distance from the main building in Cromwell Road.
In 1911 a government committee said that some of the RCA’s teachers were producing students with a bent towards handicrafts and little to offer industry but at the same time the inadequacies of the building were frankly acknowledged.
The Board of Education readily accepted the need for better accommodation. (Reading the files, it’s evident that Sir Humphrey – actually Sir Robert Morant – had decided what the committee should say long before the minister set it up.) They rejected the suggestion that the existing building might be upgraded and decided a new one was needed. In 1912 plans (below) were drawn up by Beresford Pite, professor of architecture at the RCA.
Two world wars intervened and it was only after the second, under the rectorship of Robin Darwin, that serious plans got underway. Looking at Pite’s plan, a new building may have been needed in the ‘sixties anyway if it had been implemented.
In the late 1940s and early 50s, during the era of post-war reconstruction, Penguin Books published an attractive, well-illustrated, large-format series called The Things We See, setting out the principles of good design in an attempt to raise visual literacy. There were volumes on Houses, Furniture, Pottery and Glass, Public Transport, Gardens and Ships. The introductory volume was called Indoors and Out, by Alan Jarvis, Director of Information at the Council of Industrial Design (CoID).
The Things we See was descended from the South Kensington museum’s Chamber of Horrors through the Arts and Crafts movement and the art-and-industry debates of the 1930s. Alan Jarvis’s volume, although illustrated with contemporary designs like a factory-built house and an Underground station on the Piccadilly line, expresses ideas about design, taste and industry familiar since Ruskin’s day. He said that the degradation and shabbiness of the built environment resulted from public indifference to the way things look and from liking the wrong things. This had a tinge of immorality about it. When someone said to Henry Cole that people’s tastes varied, he replied, “I think to act on the principle of ‘every one to his taste’ would be as mischievous as ‘every one to his morals’.” The sentiment persisted.
Jarvis said that modern housing is wrong because the Englishman has modelled it on the castle instead of designing at an appropriate scale. He disdained the suburb and the Tudorbethan house (as all design reformers did), but by the late 1940s anti-suburb snobbery had clothed itself in democratic ideals: “Just as manorial rights, feudal economics and a rigid system of social castes are inappropriate to a modern industrial democracy,” said Jarvis, “so are the architectural forms which we still copy.” It was a precept of the good-design movement that one material should not imitate another and that previous styles should never be copied, but the Georgian Revival had played into Jarvis’s thinking and he held up the Georgian house as a model of elegance and restraint.
He compared good and bad taste in design with good and bad taste in food and drew interesting parallels between, on one hand, a modern bedroom and a wholemeal loaf, and, on the other, a bad-taste bedroom and a plate of sticky iced cakes.
There are Arts-and-Crafts attitudes throughout. Industry bred a new type of man detached from the land and confined to the factory. Modern transport systems spoiled the town and the countryside. Mass production debased the quality of goods and suppressed individuality. There is only a grudging acceptance that mass production brought cheaper commodities and no recognition of the value of predictability and reliability.
Jarvis held out Frederic Gibberd’s modest and democratic factory-built steel house (above) as the hope for future design. It had harmonious proportions and no ornamentation other than the integral patterns of brick, roof tiles and fluted panels. It was simple and practical and did not refer to the past or have any connotations or extraneous meaning.
He viewed decoration and ornament with suspicion. He acknowledged the human urge to decorate and admitted that it had to be indulged if we were not to go down the route of “crude or second-hand satisfactions, with a synthetic taste in visual things, like a taste for soups and custard made of powder.” There was the predictable worry about vulgarity and a reminder of Adolf Loos in Jarvis’s horror of tattooing.
At the same time as this Penguin series came out, Barbara Jones, in The Unsophisticated Arts and the exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, was recording and celebrating vulgar and popular art including tattooing, fairground painting, confectionery and funerary art, at the start of an anti-design movement that accepted demotic taste and even democratic bad taste.
The hazards of separating design from execution – for the product, the maker and society – was a persistent theme in Arts and Crafts discourse on manufacture, but the practicality of designers never delegating the execution of their designs to artisans and the desirability of executants making only what they had designed themselves was debatable. Ruskin’s injunction to “never encourage the manufacture of any article in which invention has no share” was certainly not applied to every item made by Morris & Co’s employees, and its implications were the subject of fierce debate between Walter Crane (who insisted on it) and Lewis Foreman Day (who thought it led to bad workmanship).
Although William Morris was a judge of the annual National Competition of Schools of Art, he did not have a detailed knowledge of art education and did not have a high opinion of art schools in general. He believed that everyone should learn to draw and thought it essential that the craftsman should be able to draw well enough for his trade, but he was opposed to the rigid and slavish system of drawing taught in the art schools of the time. He did not believe that design could be detached from making, and insisted that that the designer should have knowledge of his medium and that he should be able to work in it himself. Ideally, designer and craftsman should be one, and failing that, the small workshop was preferable to the large factory.
The government arts schools worked on the opposite principle. But their aversion to students working directly in materials did not only concern Morris and doubts emerged in in official circles as well. The Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (1884), to which Morris submitted evidence, agreed that art education should enable students to judge the suitability of their designs to the material in which it was to be executed.
This idea filtered through into art education and, by the end of the 19th century, men of the Art Workers Guild (AWG) were taking up posts in art schools (at first the municipal art schools that were not under government control) and were driving the reforms of art education. The first municipal school was Birmingham Art School (1885), which introduced training in executed design and which Crane praised for its achievements
Among AWG members, Crane became Master of Design of the Manchester School of Art and subsequently head of the Royal College of Art, Robert Catterson-Smith became the headmaster of the Birmingham Art School, W. R. Lethaby and George Frampton were inspectors and advisors to the London County Council’s education board and the first principals of the London County Council (LCC) Central School of Arts and Crafts (1896), and the potter W.B.Dalton became the first principal of the LCC’s Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts 1899, although he did not become a member of the AWG until 1908.
At the end of the 19th century the Royal College of Art was engaged principally in the training of art teachers, still using narrow and limited methods. It was said that “no system could be better calculated to produce untrained, narrow minded men.” John Sparkes, its principal from 1876 to 1898, fully recognised its deficiencies, but it was not until Walter Crane was put in charge in 1898 that reform really began in earnest. “As far as the existing constitution of the school and its relation to the Board of Education would allow,” Crane wrote, “I endeavoured to expand the range of studies, especially in the direction of Design and Handicraft; and in order to give the students some insight into the relation between design and material, I was fortunate enough to obtain the services of accomplished artists to give lectures, and demonstrations where possible, in their special crafts … . [T]he Royal College of Art has been entirely reorganised, and while its objects, the study of decorative art as well as the training of teachers, have been reasserted, the relation of all branches of decorative design to architecture has been emphasised in the establishment of an architectural school, directed by Professor Beresford Pite, through which all students pass in the five years’ course.”
The bureaucracy of the Department of Art and Science defeated Crane and he resigned after a year, but his reforms were implemented by his successor, Augustus Spencer. Spencer brought in W.R.Lethaby as professor of design, whose curriculum was intended to ensure that those who went on to be art teachers received a broad artistic education, experience of several crafts and competence in at least one.